UC Davis experts along with the Public Policy Institute of California concluded that a peripheral canal is the best solution to support both the economic and ecological value of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.
“The bottom line is, [keeping] business as usual in the delta is not sustainable,” said co-author of the report Jeff Mount, UC Davis professor of geology and director of the Center for Watershed Sciences. “Forces against export from the delta are immutable and will lead to crisis in the delta.“
The report, released July 10, researched four possible options to restore the delta – leaving the delta as it is, building a peripheral canal, ending water exports in the delta, or building a dual facility where some of the water is taken as usual and some is diverted to a peripheral canal.
All four options had to be framed under the proposed policy expressed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger‘s Vision Delta Task Force, which aims to equally protect both the economical and ecological interests of the delta.
“We interpreted it as fish versus water supply proxy; one option is to keep going and do poorly for fish or to wean the state off the delta, which will perform well for fish and perform poorly economically,” Mount said. “We found that a peripheral canal performs better than any of the other alternatives.“
Currently, water flows from the Sacramento River into the delta where it is sucked through large pumps and distributed to the Bay Area. The canal would reroute some water from the Sacramento River before it enters the delta and divert it to Southern California. The theory is that changing the flow of the delta would lower the killing of fish and provide much higher quality water.
Opponents voiced concern that a peripheral canal will cause the delta to lose water and destroy the ecosystem of the area, damaging the farms and economy of the growing population of 500,000 surrounding the delta.
“The canal will destroy all the agriculture and tourism in the area and end recreational activities people partake in such as fishing, boating and hunting,” said Bill Wells, director of the California Delta Chambers and Bureau. “It will be an economical loss in the billions.“
Northern California has shown strong opposition to the canal in the past with the defeat of a 1982 measure to build the peripheral canal, which was viewed by some as a “water grab” by Southern California.
Wells cited past failed attempts as reason for the current doubt that a canal will be successful.
“The Sacramento River provides most of the water to the delta, so if you run off 50 percent of the water, 50 percent of the delta will dry off,” Wells said. “The San Joaquin River, Owens ‘Dry Lake‘ and the Colorado River Delta water have had water rerouted out of them and it has been a disaster.“
There is also concern over the engineering of the canal and how water quality and delta fisheries can be preserved.
“I can talk an hour about the problems with the report,” said Barbara Barrigan-Parilla, director of Restore the Delta, a coalition of farm and environmental groups. “The proposed canal is so shallow the water will evaporate anyway. There is no cost analysis of the fish screen [that would be needed] in the Sacramento River; it will need to be the length of six football fields.“
“Also, the report absolutely failed to work with the people in the community of the delta,” she said.
One thousand homes and farms have already been surveyed for workability for a feasible canal. The canal is estimated to cost between $7 billon and $9 billion and would take 10 years to build.
Mount emphasized that the peripheral canal is a recommendation of the best solution to an inevitable future problem. “The Bay Area is now more dependent on the delta than anywhere else, and since the time of the peripheral canal defeat, Southern California has diversified their portfolio [in water resources].“
The study was conducted in five months and was funded by the Davis Lucille Packard Foundation and a direct gift from Stephen D. Bechtel, son of the founder of engineering company Bechtel Corp.
WENDY WANG can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.